LONDON — With overhead power lines strung between large metal towers, polluted waterways, old scrap yards, abandoned factories, piles of used cars, and heaps of discarded refrigerators, east London once looked like a dystopic wasteland. It seemed hopelessly blighted and permanently scarred by industrialization.
Then, London landed the 2012 Summer Games. And, thanks to roughly $10 billion out of an estimated $15 billion-$20 billion Olympic budget, everything changed in the East End.
The Games will showcase plenty of stories about long odds and overcoming adversity. But none may top or make a more lasting impression than east London’s regeneration, a project started long before the Opening Ceremonies and expected to leave a legacy long after the Closing Ceremonies.
Today, east London stands as stunning proof of the Olympic movement’s power. It showcases the unparalleled ability of the Games to motivate investment, as well as economic and social change.
“The creation of the Olympic Park in one of the poorest parts of London, actually one of the poorest parts of the UK and, arguably, one of the poorest parts of Europe has been an exemplar,” said Sebastian Coe, who chairs the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games. “It’s created jobs. It’s cleaned up a landscape. It’s left legacy housing. And it’s done it in a way that would sensibly use sport as the catalyst.”
For $570 million, the overhead power lines were the first to go when construction for the Games started. The Olympic Development Authority saw the tear-down and subsequent tunneling of the power lines as a symbol of the major transformation to come and as a show of top British engineering. After a massive cleanup and construction of the Olympic Park, the landscape is unrecognizable from seven years ago when London celebrated its winning bid. And Stratford, where the Olympic Park stands, is viewed as a new metropolitan center for east London.
At its peak, the project cost about $10 million a day, according to longtime Mayor of London adviser Neale Coleman.
For that high price, the once-neglected landscape will be center stage during the Games, home to the main stadium, Aquatics Center, Velodrome, Basketball Arena, and main press areas. But looking to a more significant long-term role for the area, London organizers and government officials hope east London points the way to the future by luring investment. It has already with, for example, $2.4 billion in private funds for a shopping mall on the doorstep of the Olympic Park.
“When we were first talking about the bid in 2002, 2003, the British Olympic association asked then-Mayor of London Ken Livingstone if he would support an Olympic bid,” said Coleman, who serves as Director of London 2012 and as a board member of the Olympic Delivery Authority. “He was very keen to back a bid provided it was in east London and provided it had a focus on regeneration.”
In addition to the Olympic Park venues and Olympic Village units that will be turned into affordable housing, a key component of the east London transformation was transportation improvements with new lines and station upgrades. There are plans for continued additions, enhancing Stratford’s new role as a well-connected hub. During the Games, there will be 11 lines that connect to Stratford with one train entering or leaving every 45 seconds to clear crowds from the Olympic Park.
“You go down to Stratford now and you find a transport system that has been transformed, the largest new urban park anywhere in Europe, the largest new shopping center anywhere in Europe,” said Hugh Robertson, British Minister for Sport and the Olympics. “So, even if the Olympics did no more than create a new quarter of London, it would have been incredibly successful.”
Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.